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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Turkish Leader Threatens Action in Libya, Syria

By Dorian Jones January 14, 2020

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is threatening action in both Libya and Syria as rhetoric ramps up in the face of looming regional setbacks and growing frustrations with Moscow.

Erdogan, addressing parliament Tuesday, issued a stark warning to Damascus not to violate the latest brokered cease-fire in Syrian rebel-controlled Idlib province.

"We hope the cease-fire in Syria's Idlib is lasting. Turkey is determined to prevent (Syrian leader Bashar al-) Assad regime attacks in violation of the truce," said Erdogan to cheers from his parliamentary deputies.

"Everyone should see and accept this is no joke. Turkey will absolutely do whatever it says it will do," he added.

The Turkish president called on Damascus to allow 400,000 Syrians that had fled to Turkey's border to be allowed to return to their homes in Idlib.

Turkey is currently hosting over 3.5 million Syrian refugees amid growing public discontent blamed in part for a series of humiliating election defeats for Erdogan's ruling AKP.

Analysts say Erdogan is determined to prevent another exodus of Syrian refugees entering Turkey.

Turkish military forces are deployed in Idlib as part of a previous agreement struck with Moscow to enforce a de-escalation zone.

While Ankara backs Syrian rebels, the two countries are increasingly cooperating in Syria as part of a broader rapprochement.

The latest Idlib cease-fire was reportedly agreed to between Erdogan and Russian leader Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the inauguration of a Russian-Turkish gas pipeline in Istanbul.

"Turkey needs Russia in Syria desperately because Idlib probably cannot be resolved without Russia cooperation," said Mehmet Ogutcu of the London Energy Forum. "There is an unbalanced relationship in favor of Russia; there is a marriage of convenience. But this is not sustainable in the medium to long term."

The vulnerability of Ankara's position is underlined by the reality that Erdogan is probably unable to follow through on his threats aimed at Damascus, international studies professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University, said.

"Without Russian permission, Turkey cannot do anything," he said.

"Turkey is very dependent on Russia," he added. "How can Turkey attack any force in Syria as the sky is closed to the Turkish air force? It can only use ground forces. This is just rhetoric. Erdogan is getting angry because things are not going his way."

Moscow has deployed a sophisticated anti-aircraft missile system across northern Syria.

On Monday, Syrian and Turkish intelligence met in Moscow, but local reports claim the meeting made little progress with Syrian officials demanding the full withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syria.

The gathering of intelligence chiefs in Moscow was held on the sidelines of efforts to end another conflict, the Libyan civil war.

The warring parties of General Khalifa Haftar, whose forces control most of Libya and the internationally recognized Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), were supposed to sign a cease-fire agreement brokered by Putin and Erdogan Monday. But Haftar left Moscow without putting ink to the deal.

Erdogan slammed Haftar Tuesday, "If Haftar continues to attack the country's legitimate government and our brothers in Libya, we will never refrain from giving Haftar the lesson he deserves," he said.

This month Ankara started to deploy military forces to Tripoli as part of the security agreement signed in November between Erdogan and the GNA prime minister, Fayez Sarraj.

In a rare public display of frustration, Erdogan insisted Putin needs to deliver Haftar's signature. "We did our part, now what is left is in Mr. Putin and his team's court," he said Tuesday.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, sought to calm tensions, claiming Haftar would sign in the next couple of days. Russian mercenaries of the Wagner group back Haftar. The Wagner Group is a private security force run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman reported to have close ties with Moscow, although Putin denied last week the forces are paid for by Moscow.

However, there are growing doubts about whether Putin can deliver Haftar's signature.

"Probably General Haftar got better offers, more promises by Saudi Arabia, Israel, maybe European countries, possibly America. No one wants the Sarraj government to survive, and no one wants Turkey or Russia there," Bagci said.

Sarraj met Tuesday in Istanbul with the U.S. ambassador to Turkey David Satterfield.

Some analysts suggest Haftar could be waiting to make his final decision on whether to agree to a cease-fire at Sunday's international meeting on Libya in Berlin.

A possible move to strengthen Haftar's hand ahead of the Berlin meeting, there are reports his forces have resumed fighting against the GNA.

Ankara faces a potential deteriorating situation in both Syria and Libya, while Erdogan continues to double down with warnings and threats, something analysts warn carries risks.

"Erdogan's rhetoric is getting much harsher. He is not happy with the developments. The problem is his own rhetoric can trap him and that he will be forced into actions he doesn't want to do. It will not be good, neither for him or Turkey," said Bagci.

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